Renaissance Florence: a date with density
“In Italy, for 30 years under the Borgias, they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace—and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock.”
- Graham Greene (1904-1991)
“A city-size shrine to the Renaissance, Florence offers frescoes, sculptures, churches, palaces, and other monuments from the richest cultural flowering the world has known.”
- National Geographic
It was one of those magical moments. There I was in Florence, Italy’s brilliant Renaissance city of power and wealth, standing in the piazza outside the Basilica di Santa Croce (Church of the Holy Cross). As if the façade of the beautiful building wasn’t enough, with its marble resplendent in various shades of white, green and pink, the weather was superb.
October can be crisp and cloudless in this part of Italy early in the day, and it was that very morning. Other than the occasional faint breeze that fluttered against my cheeks, the air was still. It was still dark, just before 5am, a time I always treasure. It’s when my brain works best, when I feel most alive.
It was as solitary a moment as you can get in one of the most important piazzas of a city—like Rome, without the pollution—that doesn’t sleep. A woman clip-clopped by, walking diagonally across a corner of the square, heading who-knows-where. Was she a bistro-owner or cook, perhaps, making her way to her café or bakery in the early morning? In my imagination, in just an hour or two she’d have prepared the breakfast rolls and delicate pastries, and the hot Italian espresso, that had fast become my daily necessity.
In the center of the piazza, a street sweeper, dressed incongruously in luminescent green, brushed up the rubbish humans left behind last night, even in a sacred place like this. A couple of tourists ambled toward me, out of place this early in the day, and somehow looking tired and curiously alert at the same time. (Had they just arrived and maybe come straight from Aeroporto di Firenze-Peretola, aka Amerigo Vespucci Airport, I mused?).
But I wasn’t here to see living people or worry about tourists. I looked up at the spire, conspicuous against the dark velvet sky. Venus was rising, the brightest object in the Italian darkness, directly above the highest point of the Basilica, and almost in line with it from my vantage point. The image was one I hoped I’d never forget: surely this would be something I would remember forever, a treasured moment to be recalled, replayed in my mind’s eye, at the end of my days. (Not too soon, I thought.)
I lingered for perhaps an hour, simply soaking up the scene. And despite the cool Tuscan weather, I felt luxuriously, warmly disposed toward the world, anticipating my afternoon plans. But first, breakfast. Which direction did that café-owner go? If my guess was right, she’d be opening by now. I followed her down the street she had entered. In search of coffee and one of those pastries.
I’d come back here later. When the Basilica was taking visitors.
At 2pm I was back, queueing with the usual motley selection of tourists and students, although the Basilica surrounds were nowhere near as crowded as they would have been had I been there in, say, July or August. Many languages could be overheard, but only the occasional American or British accent, amongst native speaking Italians, French, and Germans and the occasional Asian. We all waited politely and patiently for our turn. I idly wondered how many knew that the 13th century church was originally funded by public subscription: people just like those in line, handing over cold hard cash to the Glory of God.
The cost of the ticket was a mere handful of Euros, but the value was priceless. And it wasn’t the stunning art, the ground-breaking use of architectural space, God’s presence, or the chance to communicate with my savior that had drawn me here. Nor was my pilgrimage, as it clearly was for others, to the remains of the four Popes buried here.
I strolled across the marble floor (how come there was any marble left in mines from the Middle Ages I wondered?) until I reached the corner of the chapel I was seeking. There they were, three tombs, close together; one for each of Florence’s most famous and important sons: Niccolò Machiavelli, 1469-1527, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni, 1475-1564, and Galileo Galilei, 1564-1642.
The philosopher, the artist, and the scientist.
Three of the most pre-eminent of Renaissance figures, foremost in their fields for centuries, buried just a few feet from each other. This was really something. Awesome, as the kids say. This was why I’d come all this way. I’m not prone to being stuck for words, but today I had none. Awesome? Awe-struck. Awe-inspiring.
If the defining paradox of the twenty-first century is set to be the decline of relationships despite ever-more ingenious ways to communicate, the fifteenth century’s was the incredible burgeoning of radical ideas despite the tyrannical stranglehold of Church and State. The former is a consequence of information excess; the latter, a testament to human ingenuity.
And here were three virtuosos who rose above political machinations and religious suppression and re-made the world. What on earth was in the water of the Italian city-states—Florence specifically—that germinated and nurtured the creativity that Machiavelli, Michelangelo and Galileo expressed?
What we now call the Renaissance—a ‘rebirth’ of the classical era—began in Florence in the fourteenth century, 100 years before the first of our magnificent trio appeared. It wasn’t simply a rebirth, though. That assumes a harking back to the classicism of fifth century Greece or the early Roman Empire. Reviving and venerating past glories was merely a springboard, a jumping-off place: the Renaissance is defined by the most staggering originality in thought and deed the world has ever witnessed, before and since.
There are many theories about the origins of the Renaissance, but for my money, wealth is key, but only as a starting point. As with other periods, the precursor to any historical flourish is sufficient material resources to get it going. And a critical mass of talent to match the swollen coffers. The Italian city-states were made rich from burgeoning trade in the thirteenth through the fifteenth centuries, and Florence was amongst the wealthiest of its cities.
In Florence this triggered a kind of jostling patronage for art and architecture between the ranks of the most well-off dynasties (the Borgia, Albizzi and Pazzi families were amongst the most prominent), who were keen to display their riches and success (in the service of God and his glory, of course). At the center, and the most wealthy and influential of all, sat the belligerent, ruthless Medici, a family of bankers who rose from obscurity to greatness in a handful of generations. And to celebrate their hegemony and cement their place in society, they commissioned artistic endeavor. Lots of it. The best of it. And it was the best.
Machiavelli was essentially a frustrated public official who was fascinated by power and wanted more of it himself. Unfortunately he fell out of favor in his mid-forties with the dangerously capricious Medici, who had him imprisoned. After a little torture (well, it was the Middle Ages) he was soon released. He retired to his farm a few miles outside the city in the beautiful Tuscan countryside, and, always an occasional writer in his spare time, settled down to develop his ideas into his most famous works—The Prince, completed in 1513, and The Discourses, in 1517.
Machiavelli’s unconventional political theories were regarded as almost heretical by his contemporaries—although many who have read them through the ages have felt that this was simply someone, finally, being brutally honest about how power and politics actually functioned.
And of course he had plenty of material to work with—the labyrinthine power struggles of Florentine families bent on receiving their share of trade, wealth, power, position and reputation, are still regarded as amongst the most corrupt and vicious in history. (Mind you, the courts of Henry VIII and Louis XIV might have given them a run for their money).
But let’s not digress. According to Machiavelli, the Prince (our latter-day political leader or CEO) must advance his reputation, but be prepared when it matters to do what it takes. Machiavelli sanctioned the use of brute force, rule by fear, and the willingness to bolster one’s position, whenever needed, or have latent power to threaten these. The end always justifies the means according to Machiavelli’s assessment of power. Although this seems like advice, it was actually good social science, because Machiavelli was merely observing the way politics was—and for him, ideally should be—practiced amongst the Florentine elite.
Michelangelo’s talent was boundless. It is impossible to summarize his brilliance in a few words. His sculptures, dating from when he was only sixteen, are considered to be some of the worlds’ finest: they are muscular, realistic, anatomically precise, and beautiful, all at once. His Pieta, and David, are simply awe-inspiring.
Painting was never his first choice, yet he managed to complete the ceiling of the Sistine chapel, a work of heavy physical and artistic demands, lying on his back on scaffolding for hours at a time. In later life, he turned his genius to architecture, and designed the Tomb of Julius II, the Medici chapel, the Laurentian library, and St Peter’s Basilica. Throughout this busy, productive life he also managed to write more than three hundred poems and sonnets.
Despite contemporary theories that view both the arts and social sciences as being no less analytically quantifiable, logical and rational than the hard sciences, there is a vast distance between the disciplines. Sure, a treatise on power like Machiavelli’s is these days labelled “political science”, and art in the hands of the masters like Michelangelo is explained by contemporary commentators with reference to the physical nature of materials or the psychology of perspective, but neither Machiavelli nor Michelangelo were any type of scientists, if by that is meant the world of experiment, the testing of hypotheses and the carefully controlled and rigorous examination of naturally-occurring phenomena. Machiavelli gave us superb insights, precisely expressed in beautiful yet functional language; Michelangelo, magnificent and expressive paintings, sculpture and architecture. They used logic but didn’t think of themselves as doing science.
That took someone else. Enter Galileo Galilei, amongst the earliest true scientists (over two centuries before the term was invented, by William Whewell, a Cambridge don, in 1833). If brilliance can be benchmarked across fields, he is Machiavelli’s and Michelangelo’s equal. While the political philosopher and eclectic artist were contemporaries, the supreme scientist of the late Middle Ages was born in the year the supreme artist died: 1564.
Galileo was born in Pisa and lived and died in Arcetri, in Florence’s outskirts. He was a polymath; a thinker of the highest order. In an era before super-specialization imposed non-porous disciplinary boundaries, his mind was free to roam wherever and whenever he desired—within church-defined limits, at any rate. His family wanted him to be a physician, but his interests in physics and mathematics drove him to inquire as to the nature of the world. As a young man he was fascinated by many things: the nature of pendulums; the measurement of temperature; geometry and mechanics; the mathematical bases of materials and motion.
His main obsession, though, was with the heavens above—the solar system, and the stars beyond. What got him into trouble with the papal authorities was his view that the earth revolves around the sun, rather than the sun and planets around the earth. This, of course, was contrary to the Bible and the Church’s teachings. Although he was admired, the Church felt compelled to act and suppress such blasphemy. He is famously meant to have uttered under his breath “E pur si muove” (And yet it moves), in regards to the earth, despite being forced by the Inquisition to publicly recant his views.
From 1633 until his death Galileo was under house arrest by order of the Inquisition. It was there, all the while steadfastly agreeing to behave piously and in accordance with Church teachings, that he further developed his ideas on motion and dynamics, and the strength of materials. But his major revelation was his astronomical observation. The consequences of that revelation? Planet Earth, and hence its chief inhabitants, humans, no longer stood at the center of God’s plan.
Was it Florentine wealth alone that allowed these geniuses to self-actualize? All those Florins paid for their activities and underpinned their work, but it doesn’t explain this much virtuosity all in one corner of the planet at precisely the same time. Walk the twisting streets of the medieval city as I did. You will see that everything was crammed in, buildings nestling together between narrow, wending streets broadening to larger, longer viale, and unexpected piazzas. The places in which Machiavelli, Michelangelo and Galileo lived, worked, argued, fought, engaged and loved.
Walking through Renaissance Florence, looking at it through the eyes of these geniuses is a date with density, a compactness and concentration of pure, unrivaled ingenuity. Everything comes together—the people, the gifted artistry, the development of numeracy and literacy, alongside the ideas, the paintings, the sculptures, the buildings, the literature. Go through the Uffizi Gallery for the splendid art, and the adjacent Piazza della Signoria and look at the powerful sculptures displayed for all to see. Marvel at the artistry, inventions, poetry—and the thinkers, writers, sculptors, painters, architects who lived, cheek-by-jowl, in a small Renaissance city-state. You’re left with the impression of a past that was incredibly productive, intense, and sumptuous – and in its heyday, they knew each other, influenced each other, inspired each other over several generations.
Somehow, Renaissance Florence managed to provide the well-spring for this creativity—all the while contending with competition from rival powers – French, Spanish, Italian, and even the Papacy in Rome. War, pestilence, plague, disease, religious dogma and the Inquisition had to be overcome, too—it was all happening in the tumultuous era of Machiavelli, Michelangelo and Galileo.
It’s as if history said “Let’s put as much brilliance as possible in the same 100 year period, in the same place, in the same few square miles, with a critical mass of population, resources, optimism, culture, apprenticeship, enquiry, talent, and originality.” Throw into the mix patrons who sought to outdo others in a tangible display of their wealth, power and piety, and a willingness to commission the best from the best. It was a remarkable period in history—and one that’s not likely ever to be repeated.
The genius of Machiavelli, Michelangelo and Galileo is not that they told us what to think. They did something far more influential. They told us what to think about. And how to think about the world.
Our modern appreciation for the cosmos, mathematics, accounting, investing, the classical art and literature of Greece and Rome, human anatomy, philosophy, poetry, literature, military strategy, politics—all emanated from or were accelerated by Florentine innovation.
The density of Florence created the destiny of Florence. And it affected our own destiny, right up to the 21st century. It’s been reverberating for 500 years. And counting.
Allan-Olney, Mary (1870). The Private Life of Galileo: Compiled primarily from his correspondence and that of his eldest daughter, Sister Maria Celeste. Boston: Nichols and Noyes.
Capponi, Niccolò (2010). An Unlikely Prince: The Life and Times of Machiavelli. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.
Crum, Roger J, Paoletti, John T (2008). Renaissance Florence: A Social History. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
Machiavelli, Niccolò (1513). The Prince. Translated by WK Marriott.
Wallace, William E (2011). Michelangelo: The Artist, the Man and his Times. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.